Madison Cawthorn: How Evangelism Success Claims Work

Madison Cawthorn: How Evangelism Success Claims Work November 27, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Recently, I showed you an interview with a young Republican fundagelical named Madison Cawthorn. In that interview, he made some claims about his evangelism success. Those claims reminded me very powerfully of similar ones I heard when I myself was a fundagelical. Indeed, fundagelicals seeking power and attention often make claims about all the success they’re having with recruitment. Today, let me show you how to spot fake success claims, why fundagelicals make those claims in the first place, and what these false claims mean for the failed ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love.

millet ducks and rice christians
(Raushan Raj.) Rice Christians, meet Millet Ducks. No wonder the claims get so wild!

(Notes: A fundagelical is a right-wing, fundamentalist evangelical Christian. At its heart, evangelism is a sales process. Evangelists are salespeople who shill only one product, which is active membership in their own group. And hooboy, are they ever bad at salesmanship! Also, I refer to fundagelicals as a tribe quite often. I use this word in its sociological sense. Tribalism is not a good thing.)

How Christians Make Real Sales.

Any religious group looks first and foremost to its own survival — and after that, to its rise to dominance. To achieve those goals, that group needs money, numbers, and stable growth over time in both departments.

For any well-established religion, growth occurs predictably and easily through legal coercion or cultural dominance — along with breeding like bunnies. Person-to-person efforts have never approached similar gains. Nor will they magically start doing so. It’s a phenomenal waste of resources — if we’re going by the stated goals of those pushing the flocks to evangelize.

Indeed, fundagelical leaders push so hard for personal evangelism that any observers of their culture would be quite forgiven for imagining that it is the most important recruitment tool in the entire fundagelical arsenal!

Unfortunately, that kind of evangelism does a lot more for and to the salespeople than it ever has or ever will for their tribe’s growth. That’s why their Dear Leaders always come up with cringeworthy sales strategies that absolutely do not work. For their own covert, unstated goals, this kind of evangelism works great.

Over the years, then, those leaders have painstakingly taught their flocks to value this kind of evangelism — and to revere any tribemates who can claim any kind of success with it.

Making Claims.

In Jewish Insider, young fundagelical Madison Cawthorn made some dubious claims about his evangelistic successes:

Cawthorn said he had converted “several Muslims to Christ because of that,” including a “young woman” who lived in New York and someone “down in Atlanta” when he was in rehab after his accident. “It was pretty incredible.”

He did not go into specifics[. . .]

“I have, unsuccessfully. I have switched a lot of, uh, you know, I guess, culturally Jewish people. But being a practicing Jew, like, people who are religious about it, they are very difficult. I’ve had a hard time connecting with them in that way.”

Here, we see a very typical set of claims from someone who desperately wants to be known as a successful soulwinner.

Just as a start, I would never expect an aspiring soulwinner to “go into specifics” about his claims.

He can’t. If he did, then we’d know he wasn’t actually having much success at all.

Interpreting Fundagelical Claims of Success.

For example, Madison Cawthorn will never reveal what “a lot” translates into. Nor will he explain exactly how his marks “switched.”

The accident, by the way, refers to a serious one he was in many years ago when he was 18 (7 years ago — he’s 25 now). The accident paralyzed him from the waist down.

So seven years ago, while in rehab from a serious accident, he totally converted some people to his religion. He has no more recent successes, or he’d list them.

But the timeline is the least of my concerns.

Neither of his two specific success claims involves people living anywhere near him. Thus, he has no idea how fervent they are now or whether or not they’ll last in the faith. Nor does he know how well they’re being mentored or what beliefs they’re settling into.

He provides no details of these “lot” of Jews he claims, either. This omission speaks volumes, especially when his “several Muslims” turns out to be two people he knew years ago who lived far away and encountered him very briefly during a time of incredible stress for all of them.

Just overall, Cawthorn’s claims of evangelistic success sound completely inflated, just like almost everything else is in fundagelicals’ testimonies.

This is a very common lie-for-Jesus in that crowd. They claim wild evangelistic success, but when you drill into their claims you find just smoke and mirrors. It’s all exaggerations or flat-out lies.

Inflating Success.

In almost every way imaginable, Madison Cawthorn reminds me of my Evil Ex Biff.

See, our church regarded Biff as a master soulwinner. He reveled in their adoration, turning his face to their praise like a sunflower. Many people there sought his advice regarding their own evangelistic efforts.

But when you really got down to it, Biff didn’t actually make many sales.

He only made two sales that stuck for longer than a few weeks. One was to me, of course, and one to his best friend Skyler. However, nobody’d ever consider Skyler a model Pentecostal. And I, of course, deconverted in dramatic fashion.

All of his other sales numbered perhaps half a dozen at most. They drifted in, then out of our church after a few weeks. They tended to be absolute weirdos. After their encounters with Biff, they grew even weirder. And then they flamed out and left in search of groups that’d accommodate opinions that were wackadoodle even by our standards.

And still, as dismal as Biff’s track record really was, it far outshone anything the rest of us could ever manage.

I’m willing to bet that if we tracked down Madison Cawthorn’s claimed sales, we’d find that they run along very similar lines.

Painful Claims.

We saw this same problem described in the excellent 2013 post “Rice Christians and Fake Conversions.” A longtime missionary to Asia, Laura Parker, wrote it. She lays out a struggle most long-term missionaries have experienced (emphases hers):

I remember our first year on the field literally thinking, “No one is ever, ever going to come to faith in Christ, no matter how many years I spend here.” [. . .]

Here I was learning from living in the culture, that the leap from following Buddha to following Jesus was seemingly a gigantic one, yet it seemed that every time I turned around Western teams were having wild success in convincing nationals to make it.

And they would tell their stories or I would read them online, and I would immediately begin to shrink a little, or a lot.

What was I doing wrong? I obviously suck at being a missionary.  These were my logical conclusions.

The answer, of course, turned out to be simple. Unfortunately, it sounds like Parker herself is a fairly honest person with a good head on her shoulders, so she suffered for a long time through these comparisons. Here’s the simple answer she needed but didn’t have:

To put it as charitably as I possibly can, those missionaries’ claims of success were simply wild exaggerations or completely off-base misperceptions of what was going on.

The Fantasy Claims that Compensate for Reality.

Their claims did not represent reality in any way. They were just fantasies. Her tribemates welcomed them anyway, though, because they confirmed their beliefs.

It never occurs to the few honest people in tribalistic systems that their tribemates might be anything less than completely honest, or that anybody in the group might not perceive reality accurately.

We’ll talk later about the actual problem Laura Parker describes, that conceptual leap from Buddhism to Christianity. For now, I’ll just note that Madison Cawthorn experienced the same exact problem, as does his tribe as a whole, so it’s worth examining. His dishonest-sounding testimony of evangelistic success, like that of Parker’s peers in missionary work, helps assuage the tribe’s discomfort at its long-standing inability to beat that problem.

That’s all he’s doing: telling the tribe that it’s possible to win in every situation, against every other ideology. Very little makes them happier than the notion that their beliefs are so gosh-darned awesome that they compelled a Jew or Muslim to convert — as Madison Cawthorn has discovered.

This tribe’s very authoritarian flocks need to feel like they’re on the winning team, after all. They know very well what happens to those without power. They want no part whatsoever of any ideology that lands them on the short end of the power stick.

All that blahblah about the meek shall inherit the earth can go blow a goat.

They want to feel powerful.

Hype in Claims Over Truth.

Hype matters a lot more than actual sales successes in any tribalistic system. Remember, they want growth and dominance. Honesty won’t get a dysfunctional, tribalistic group anywhere. Lies will. So the tribe learns to attack truth-tellers in their midst while rewarding liars who confirm their beliefs and flatter them.

This actually happened to me. When I threatened to expose Biff’s completely fabricated testimony, I’m the one who got yelled at by him and some of our friends for muzzling the oxen and blocking out the the lamp’s light. They said I wanted to send people to Hell who might otherwise be saved through a little creative storytelling. Even now, I often see similar attacks made against the critics of evangelists whose stories turn out to contain lies.

So it’s not hard to imagine Madison Cawthorn doing something very similar in his own dubious claims. His tribe won’t demand support for his claims any more than they did with Laura Parker’s colleagues, not when lies make them feel this good.

Anybody in the tribe who hears Cawthorn’s claims will celebrate his successes. Many will castigate themselves for not being similarly successful. But nobody will actually question anything he says.

(Yes, I’m aware now that the “muzzling the oxen” reference doesn’t refer to silencing evangelists, but rather to paying them. That’s just how I heard it used back then. I didn’t learn better till after deconversion, oddly enough.)

A Totally True Ideology That Depends on Lies.

I wish Christians realized what they’re saying about their religion when it requires so many lies to prop itself up.

This exact problem troubled me greatly when I myself was fundagelical. A position that depends upon lies is not a position I’d consider worthy of holding at all.

But every time I investigated someone’s testimony, I found it to be full of holes. Every single claim I checked out turned out to be false. Every single one!

(Segue: Biff wasn’t even the most extreme liar in our end of Christianity. He was only trying to break into the big leagues with a super-trendy testimony. In the 1980s, that meant something involving the Satanic Panic. Had he converted in 2010, he’d have presented himself as totally-an-ex-atheist-y’all, since atheism was the tribe’s boogeyman around then. Soon, another trendy testimony archetype will overtake fundagelicals. Their current boogeyman is disobedient Christians who reject the culture wars, so that’ll be the trendy enemy to overcome through creative testimony-crafting. Just you watch.)

Our totally true ideology turned out to depend utterly on lies to sustain itself.

The Questions Sparked by That Realization.

Very early on, I began having a lot of unanswerable questions about that problem. I tried to ignore those questions for a long time — they went into the Deal With It Later pile. But the pile toppled on top of me eventually. As I grew closer and closer to deconversion, as my Faith Pool drained further and further, the questions cut into me:

If my tribe claimed we had a real live god doing real live stuff in the real live world, then why couldn’t we ever come up with solid support for our claims about his activities? Where were the real miracles? The real conversions? Why did so many people drift in and out again, if what we had was actually true and real?

For that matter, why did our sales pitch appeal only to people who occupied the outer margins of society?

And oh, I mean our Dear Leaders certainly had hand-waving aplenty to cover these questions. But the hand-waving stopped sounding convincing after a while. They sure had a lot of excuses, but the truth of the matter was that something did not add up about our claims in general.

That’s why our amateur evangelists never had trouble whatsoever about lying about their supposed success. No gods would stop them, and the flocks rewarded them lavishly for their exaggerations and fabrications.

That’s how it works today, too. 

The Living Contradictions.

Every single lie fundagelicals tell, every exaggeration they make, every false claim they offer shows the rest of us yet another contradiction to their claims.

You’d think they’d want to offer as few contradictions as possible to the people they claim they want to persuade. However, they’re not really posturing for our benefit. We’re barely even a consideration here.

Instead, these liars-for-Jesus posture for their own tribe — and for themselves.

And in that way, they receive exactly the reward they seek.

As long as the tribe rewards its hucksters for dishonesty, then dishonesty will be the order of the day for its hucksters. 

NEXT UP: When the name-it-and-claim-it crowd tries to force the rest of the world to conform to their crazymaking bubble culture, they tell us something very important about themselves. We’ll check out what that is tomorrow. See you then!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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